Why I Had a Double Mastectomy

Just weeks after CBS handed Early Show anchor René Syler her walking papers, she underwent a prophylactic mastectomy on Jan. 9, 2007. “When you get through that you realize, ‘Wow, I am strong,'” she says. Syler, 44, talked to PEOPLE’s Maria Eftimiades at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y.—where she lives with husband Buff Parham, 58, a Univision executive, daughter Casey, 10, and son Cole, 8—about her family history of breast cancer and why she’s happy with her decision.

When I was a kid, I planned to be healthy my whole life. I didn’t know a surgeon was going to be taking my breasts off.

I never had a tumor. I never had a lump. What I had was microcalcifications, these tiny white flecks—it looks like buckshot in your breast—that indicated the cells are growing abnormally. Sometimes people get one or two. When I was 42, a mammogram showed I had like 30. I also had a family history. My father was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 10—he had a radical mastectomy. My mother was diagnosed when I was 34—she had a lumpectomy. They both recovered. My mother is one of those people who ate healthy way before it was popular. She didn’t smoke; she exercised. That’s when I began to understand the randomness of this. When someone who does everything right gets it, you realize these are the cards you’re dealt.

I underwent genetic testing, and I found out I did not carry the gene that causes breast cancer. But because of the abnormal cell growth, I had four biopsies on my left breast in four years. The last one, they had to cut me open—the flecks of microcalcium were under the nipple. As I was lying on the table, I thought, “Am I just sitting here, waiting for the year that someone says, ‘This year you have cancer’?” Was I so attached to my breasts that this was a risk I was willing to take? Talk about soul searching. I had to ask myself, “What did my breasts mean to me?” I nursed both of my kids. They’d done what God meant for them to do. Now they were giving me so much trouble.

I had been considering prophylactic mastectomy for two years. For my husband, it was a no-brainer. For me, they were not his breasts coming off.

Five weeks before my surgery, I was called into a meeting with my bosses from The Early Show. I don’t care who you work for, when the big boss calls, you’re terrified.

I can remember the meeting was really short. Nobody said, “You’re fired,” but you’re fired. They said, “As you know, we’re going to take the show in another direction. Thank you for your service.” And bye bye. I don’t know why I was fired. All I know is they needed to make a change, and I wasn’t part of it.

That, with the added pressure of the surgery, was the most difficult time of my adult life. It’s hard for me to explain how gut-wrenching it was. Somebody asked me what my stress level was then—it was like a 50.

The day of the surgery I had a breakdown. I was in the hospital, and I thought, “I could still leave.” Not a moment later, a breast surgeon I had interviewed on The Early Show stopped by to see me. I said, “I don’t know, I’m not sure.” She said, “René, we talked about this. This surgery is for people like you.” She put me at ease; she made me okay in my head.

When it was over, I had this huge industrial size bra, with two drains coming out from my arms to collect the fluid. I was in a lot of pain. My poor son. When he saw me, his eyes got really big. He thought I was like Frankenmommy. All I could think was, my family needs me. The thought of not being here to watch my children grow up was unbearable. I had to reduce my risk of cancer.

After they did the mastectomy, the doctors combed through the tissues, five millimeters at a time. They did not find cancer, but they found the abnormal cell growth in the right breast. I felt the bullet by my ear. I thought, “Oh geez, I did the right thing.”

Last month I had reconstructive surgery. I went with the silicon. I woke up with my teenage breasts—they’re sitting up where they used to be. They’re much firmer and harder than my regular breasts—they feel like rubber balls and my chest feels numb. I’m self-conscious when I hug people.

But it’s the price you pay. I feel like a weight has been lifted. And I’ll never have a mammogram again. When I told my doctor that was what I was consumed by, she said, “René, we’re not trying to avoid biopsies and mammograms, we’re trying to avoid breast cancer.”

I stay up late now. I’m less stressed. My book Good Enough Mother has just been published. I had conversations with women who are smart, accomplished, college educated, who would be reduced to tears because they forgot their kid’s cupcakes for school or missed a play date. That’s when I thought of “good enough.” You don’t have to be perfect; you just have to be good enough. I try my best and it will have to do.

I would love to be back on the air—I’m going to be on The View on April 17. But I went through the perfect storm. Now all I want is to get healthy. When something like this happens, you realize how futile planning is.

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